Many strive to learn it
but bilingualism grows
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
September 4, 2006
Immigrants and English
By EUNICE MOSCOSO
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/04/06
Washington — New to the United States? Want to learn
English? Get in line.
With immigration approaching record levels, English
instruction classes across the country — from
California to Pennsylvania to Massachusetts — are full
and have waiting lists up to 18,000 people long.
The demand for English-language instruction is evident
on Spanish-language television, with an array of
commercials for English-learning products, including
the top seller, "Inglés Sin Barreras," or "English
without Barriers," a video and audio program that
reportedly sells 60,000 copies a year.
Immigrant advocates say the full classes and booming
business in language products demonstrate that many
immigrants are eager to learn English and assimilate.
"People assume that if you don't speak English it's
because you are not trying or don't want to, when in
fact, a lot of people are struggling to learn," said
Holly Patrick, manager of language programs at
Atlanta's Latin American Association, where about 500
adults are learning English.
But critics say too many immigrants are still not
learning the language or integrating into American
culture and that the English is under attack as
government agencies increasingly try to to accommodate
foreigners. For example, many states offer driver's
license tests in various languages, and electoral
ballots in some areas are printed in Spanish.
"The problem is that multilingual government has
created for some an English-optional society," said
Rob Toonkel, communications director for U.S. English
Inc., a group that advocates making English the
official language of the federal government.
Toonkel, who teaches English to immigrants, said that
in many places, immigrants can function without
learning English and therefore have no motivation to
learn. Toonkel said the waiting list numbers for
English as a Second Language, or ESOL, classes are
inflated because people sign up for several classes
and fail to take their names off once they are
accepted into one.
Georgia gets big influx
The Census Bureau reported last week that the number
of foreign-born people in the United States reached
nearly 36 million last year, representing about 12
percent of the population. The number increased from
31 million five years ago. More than half of the
immigrants are from Latin America.
Georgia ranked fourth nationally in immigrant growth,
with a 38 percent increase in its foreign-born
Nationwide, about 1.4 million adults are taking ESOL
classes that are subsidized in part by federal and
state governments, up from 1.1. million in 2000. In
addition, many immigrants are taking classes sponsored
by community groups, churches and for-profit
Teach yourself at home
In Georgia, 27,851 adults enrolled in ESOL classes
this fiscal year and a few of the programs have
waiting lists, officials said. Whether they are legal
or illegal immigrants is unknown. Mike Light,
spokesman for the Georgia Department of Technical and
Adult Education, said people who take ESOL classes are
not required to prove citizenship or legal residency.
At Georgia State University, 181 students just began
the intensive English program for the Fall semester, a
30 percent increase from last year. Most are learning
English to attend American universities and hail from
various countries, including Vietnam, Taiwan and
Colombia, said Cheryl Delk, the program's director.
John Allen, assistant director for media relations at
GSU, said most of the students in the intensive
English program have visas that allow them to study in
the United States, but he declined to comment on the
legal status of other students.
In many cities, such as Philadelphia — where a
sandwich shop recently received national attention for
demanding that customers order cheese steaks in
English — adult English classes are full and teachers
report constantly turning students away, according to
The National Council of State Directors of Adult
Education said there are also waiting lists for ESOL
classes in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois,
Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska,
New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin. Not all
states report their totals to the association.
In Massachusetts, 18,000 people are waiting for the
classes, officials said. In the Milwaukee area,
several businesses, including the Cargill meatpacking
company, have set up their own English classes for
employees because of the wait for classes.
Other immigrants are learning English at home. Most
self-teaching English programs are targeted at working
adults, with the message that financial success
depends on learning English. An Internet ad for Inglés
Sin Barreras asks, "Cuanto dinero le cuesta no hablar
Inglés?" or "How much money does it cost you not to
Disney has also jumped into the market, with Disney's
World of English, an elaborate program for families
that includes language guides, storybooks and DVDs
featuring Disney characters teaching English. And
America Online, responding to consumer demand, last
year launched an English-teaching Web site aimed at
Progress each generation
According to a survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, a
research group, 57 percent of Hispanics believe that
immigrants have to speak English to be part of
American society, while 41 percent do not.
In another survey, the center found that Hispanic
immigrants lose their native language significantly
with each generation. About 46 percent of U.S.-born
children of immigrants use English as their dominant
language. In the next generation, that figure jumps to
But other signs point to growing bilingualism,
including bank ATMs offering services in English and
Spanish, stores with Spanish names in small towns and
suburbs, federal agency press releases in Spanish and
the booming Spanish-language media, including
television, radio and newspapers.
The Census Bureau reported earlier this year that
there are 5.2 million U.S. households where all
members have "at least some" or "a lot of difficulty"
Many Americans were upset earlier this year when
immigrants marching in favor of legislation to offer
legal residence to millions of illegal workers waved
Mexican flags during demonstrations.
A call for one language
John Keeley, a spokesman for the Center for
Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington that
advocates stricter immigration controls, said the
sheer number of legal and illegal immigrants arriving
in the United States causes the formation of
self-contained ethnic ghettos or boroughs that are
separate from mainstream American culture.
Lawmakers seem to be taking heed. The Senate passed a
provision earlier this year to "preserve and enhance
the role of English as the national language." The
measure was included in a large immigration bill which
is stalled in Congress.
In addition, President Bush has urged immigrants to
learn English, as well as history and civics, to aid
in their assimilation into American culture.
Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy
Institute, a Hispanic research organization at the
University of Southern California, said he believes
immigrants across the country are trying to do just
"Immigrants realize that English is the language of
currency in the United States ... and that English is
one of the basic ingredients to guarantee upward
mobility," he said. "The one thing that characterizes
98 percent of the immigrants coming to the United
States is that they want to improve their lives."